As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama emphatically stated that medical marijuana use was an issue best left to the states. One of the first promises he made as the newly elected president was that he was “not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws.” This was even reiterated formally in the so-called Ogden memo of 2009, in which the Department of Justice instructed U.S. attorneys that federal enforcement should apply only to medical marijuana operations that were not in clear compliance with state law.
Obama has since “clarified” those promises, but it still makes no sense that Matthew R. Davies, a business school graduate who set out in 2009 to create a medical marijuana dispensary that would be in full compliance with California law, is facing up to 15 years in prison — with a mandatory five-year sentence.
This is just one more puzzling incident in the history of a president who not only made these promises but has also admitted to heavy recreational use of marijuana himself in his youth. As a second-term president, with little to lose, why is he continuing his odd campaign on a state-approved industry that employs people, pays taxes and distributes a safe and clinically useful product?
Lost in this fray is the fact that marijuana is medicine. My son is autistic and has an autoimmune gastrointestinal problem for which, at my suggestion, his doctor prescribed him Marinol (a synthetic THC drug). When that proved ineffective, the doctor agreed to prescribe medical cannabis, which is legal in Rhode Island where we were living and, unlike in some states, such as California, is approved for pediatric use. At the time, our son was eating his clothes. Whether as an autistic behavior or because of gastric pain, we weren’t sure; but every day, unless we had him shirtless, he would consume the entire front of his cotton shirt, and sometimes his jacket, on the bus to and from school.
Medical marijuana cured him. But it wasn’t as easy as running out and buying him a joint. When we first considered cannabis, my husband and I made a decision not to procure it illegally. That was complicated because although medical marijuana was legal in Rhode Island at the time, dispensaries were not, and we needed information about what kind of marijuana might help our son.
There are hundreds of strains of cannabis, with varying clinical properties — anxiety relief, sleep promotion, analgesia, anti-nausea — and the ways they are processed also affect the way they work. I realize that some people use dispensaries to purchase cannabis for recreational use, but I can attest that the cannabis experts at the out-of-state dispensaries we consulted were focused on the medical properties of the marijuana they sold. They shared their considerable knowledge to help us find the particular strain that cured our son’s pica (the medical name for eating nonfood items). I keep a corduroy jacket with a half-nibbled sleeve as a reminder of that day.
Our doctor, who started out as a healthy skeptic, was so impressed and moved by our son’s experience that he asked if I’d speak with another parent in a similar situation. This woman was desperate for help. Her son was even more destructive and aggressive than ours, and she had several children (we have one) and just didn’t have the time and energy for the kind of trial-and-error experimentation we had done. If she’d had access to a good dispensary, things could have been different for her.
Without access, a medical marijuana license is a piece of paper. Even with the attentive grower we found in Rhode Island, we ran into problems, including a pest infestation and a robbery. Then came an even more devastating obstacle: After a year or so, he informed us he was giving up growing because he needed to find work. If there had been a dispensary in Rhode Island, he could have sold his excess there. But because he wanted to follow the law — which meant patients could only pay his actual costs — he was in an economic bind.
For a medical marijuana patient, a well-run, reliable dispensary like Matthew Davies’ should be a basic patient right. There is scientific consensus that cannabis has useful clinical benefits, and unlike synthetic pharmaceuticals, it has almost no toxicity.
An article in the Atlantic estimates that prosecuting Davies’ dispensary is going to run more than a million dollars, not to mention putting a man with two small children and no criminal record in prison for five to 15 years. The federal government has charged Davies with cultivating marijuana. It contends he “sought to make large profits,” which, if true, might have put him out of compliance with California law. He has insisted he violated no state laws. Putting that issue aside, it is clear that he was operating transparently and attempting to stay within the law. Is he really the biggest threat federal law enforcers can find to prosecute?
When large banks illegally game the system and ruin people’s lives with subprime mortgages, instead of prosecution, our government bails them out and allows the CEOs huge bonuses. And yet a person who creates a business that provides safe, reliable medicine that patients rely on may have his life upended for following state law. According to press accounts, Davies’ business is transparent, efficient and provides professional service — all things worthy of praise. It has the additional social benefits of both employing people and helping law enforcement by keeping illicit marijuana off the streets. If a well-run, meticulously inventoried, state-law-compliant place is a target for federal action, no dispensary is safe.
According to Marijuana Policy Project estimates, there are more than 1 million medical marijuana patients in the United States. An attack on state-approved dispensaries is an attack on patients. We would consider it inhumane to take away anti-nausea or pain medicine from a cancer patient. But when the administration raids dispensaries and destroys plants, that is exactly what it was doing.
So what is the lesson here? Smoke marijuana illegally, and you can become president. Try to provide a safe, consistent product that keeps the trade out of domestic and foreign drug cartels and brings in tax revenue, and face 15 years jail time.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a novelist who teaches at Columbia and Brown universities.